NEW ORLEANS – Mayor Ray Nagin could be days away from announcing he will run for governor of Louisiana — a move many in this stricken city regard as preposterous.
If Nagin runs, he will do so on his stewardship of New Orleans. But this is a city in great distress two years after Hurricane Katrina, with large swaths still empty, an appalling murder rate and a painfully sluggish recovery. Nagin's disapproval rating stood at 65 percent in a recent poll.
"He's clearly seeing his election potential differently than most of Louisiana. Statewide, Ray Nagin is dead in the water," said G. Pearson Cross, an assistant professor of politics at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "One thing is clear: New Orleans has not had the forceful and dynamic leadership necessary to get recovery on the right track."
But Nagin, in a City Hall interview late last month, struck an optimistic note.
"What I'd like to make sure everybody understands around America is that this city is overcoming a lot of odds. It's like a miracle city in some respects," New Orleans' fourth black mayor said. "Our citizens are doing incredible things out there in spite of a lack of resources, or broken promises."
A member of Nagin's inner circle told The Associated Press last month that the second-term Democratic mayor planned to announce a run for governor shortly after Labor Day. He has already taken several fundraising trips, and his technical adviser secured the Internet address naginforgovernor.com.
Of the possibility of a run for higher office, the 51-year-old Nagin said: "The only way I would do something like that is if I thought it would help this recovery."
The sign-up period for the Oct. 20 election ballot opened Tuesday and runs through Thursday, with Republican Rep. Bobby Jindal — the front-runner in all the recent polls — the first one to get into the race to succeed Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who decided not to seek re-election after she was widely criticized as weak and indecisive following Katrina. Democratic state Sen. Walter Boasso of hard-hit St. Bernard Parish is also runnning.
Nagin's detractors call him ineffective and bristle at the thought that he would consider higher office with nearly three years left on his term, city services in traction, and the black community that re-elected him suffering acutely since the storm. Privately, some said they suspect Nagin knows he has little chance but wants to use the publicity to ensure a political future in Louisiana.
In an Aug. 21 editorial, New Orleans' Times-Picayune newspaper wondered: "Why is he worrying about all this just now, when he's got so much else on his plate?"
But Nagin points to areas where he believes he has made a difference, citing the population's rebound to 60 percent of its pre-Katrina level. Nagin boasted that higher police salaries have led to the biggest recruiting class since the hurricane, and added that a new garbage contract has cleaned up the French Quarter and helped keep the city's tourism-based economy rolling.
But David Bell, a juvenile court judge and community leader in mostly black eastern New Orleans, said Nagin's efforts are often seen as incremental and misdirected. Bell alluded to Nagin's hiring of planner Ed Blakely as his recovery chief, and Blakely's promise of "cranes in the sky" that have yet to be seen.
"It's great to have large vision. But I think right now the public is more concerned about potholes, and the sewer lines, and the water lines," Bell said. "Those are the things that restore faith."
Publicly accessible records of Nagin's daily calendar are not detailed enough to show how he spends his workday, but it appears he has no communication left with the governor's office. State records show he has met formally with Blanco only once in the past six months.
Marie Centanni, a spokeswoman for Blanco, would not comment on Nagin's performance as mayor or possible bid for governor, other than to say: "He sounds as if he's already running." A spokesman for another Nagin target, Don Powell, federal coordinator for the Gulf Coast rebuilding, declined to comment.
Nagin, a janitor's son who grew up in New Orleans' Creole neighborhood of Treme, was a cable TV executive with an MBA from Tulane University before he was elected in 2002 with strong support from the white business elite. He soon delivered on promises to crack down on City Hall graft.
But after Katrina, he was bitterly criticized for not evacuating the city sooner, and many wrote him off after his emotional, sometimes ranting, calls for federal help in the aftermath of the storm. Nevertheless, he scored a surprising re-election last year. This time, working-class blacks were his base.
Since the storm, he has made eyes roll and alienated many voters with some of his off-the-cuff remarks, including assurances that mostly black New Orleans would always be a "Chocolate City."
More recently, he said that news coverage of the city's violent crime has at least one advantage — it "keeps the New Orleans brand out there, and it keeps people thinking about our needs and what we need to bring this community back."
Some voters, though, say they see larger truths in the comments known around here as "Naginisms." For example, Katrina has pushed rents out of the reach of the working-class blacks who have defined the city.
Brigid Harrison, a law and political science professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, studied Nagin's response to Katrina versus New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's handling of the World Trade Center attack. She noted that while Giuliani was quick to give President Bush credit for his response to the disaster, Nagin skewered the federal government after Katrina.
"The rhetoric has gotten in the way of building policy," Harrison said.
But Nagin takes a different view: "My legacy will probably be one of honesty and integrity and bringing that to government in a meaningful way. I'm sure my legacy will also be this guy said things pretty straight and wasn't your typical politician."